msnbc.msn.com - Russia sent hundreds of tanks and troops into the separatist province of South Ossetia and bombed Georgian towns Saturday in a major escalation of the conflict that has left scores of civilians dead and wounded.
With the US tied up in its own wartime commitments, Russia feels a lot more free to flex its military muscle. Why do you think former Soviet "allies" like Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary are so interested in having a US military presence in their countries? Having felt the crushing weight of the Soviet bear, they have no desire to go back to being a vassal state. The the EU has shown itself to be a cowardly appeaser to Islamic-Fascism, so why would these former Soviet vassal states trust them for aid in their defense versus a significant military foe like the Russians. The US military has shown itself to be both steadfast in its support of allies and absolutely deadly on the battlefield...who would you trust?
More to follow in this folks, this is only the beginning.
Where is Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon, and Morgan Freeman on this terrible, illegal, immoral, unjust war with all these civilian deaths? Opps, I forgot. Morgan's all banged up & at the rehab hospital and the others won't say a f-ing word because they'd get shot in a New York minute if they went there to voice their displeasure. As long as it doesn't affect the price of oil over here, bombs away.
I have been following this Georgian thing for months. Even before this happened. Case and point, it is a flex of Russian military muscle. Basically going after the kid on the play ground because he did one thing to piss you off (the nerd kid) and then over amplifying the situation to make it sound like its all the nerdy kids fault.
BTW I think the Russian Navy still has fleets based in other countries (mostly ex-soviet) like the Ukraine, etc.
Numbers don't lie.
Total personnel: 26,900
Main battle tanks (T-72): 82
Armoured personnel carriers: 139
Combat aircraft (Su-25): Seven
Heavy artillery pieces (including Grad rocket launchers): 95
Total personnel: 641,000
Main battle tanks (various): 6,717
Armoured personnel carriers: 6,388
Combat aircraft (various): 1,206
Heavy artillery pieces (various): 7,550
Russia is never to be trusted. Clearly, as Killjoy and 1283 said, it's a show of force while the US is preoccupied and before Georgia is accepted into NATO (with the backing of the US). I dont know if people have followed it but I'd recommend reading about it: the US Missile Defense Shield. Russia has openly stated they will target their missiles at Ukraine if it accepts the deployment of the shield and joins NATO and it is willing to go to war if the Czech Republic accepts a deal with the US over the defense shield. Same rhetoric has been directed towards Poland aswell (re: missile defense shield).
There is no doubt in my mind that due to the actions of Putin and the new President (dont remember his name) that Russia intends to re-invent the Soviet Union. The "elite" in Russia clearly believe that all of the countries under the (now dissolved) Warsaw Pact are still allies of the Sovi.. er.. Russia. They seem to overlook the fact that many (if not most) of those former Soviet-bloc countries are now (or soon-to-be) members of NATO.
The recent (post 2005) "relations" between; Russia and Iran, Russia and Venezuela and Russia and China, are clear indicators that Russia is still in a mentality of us-vs-them. This is supported by the fact that Russia surpassed the US as the world's largest arms dealer (source: congressional research service) and the main recipients are: Venezuela, Iran and China and secondary recipients (specifically the groups Iran supplies weapons from Russia to); Hamas, Hezbollah and Syria.
I dont mean to keep on ranting but Russia's hostilities are not a surprise to anyone who has followed their "relations" with former Eastern Bloc members. I predict a cease-fire after a lot of grandstanding by the UN (League of Nations, anyone?) and the EU. The US with it's interests in both Georgia and Russia will have to play a pivotal role in helping to de-escalate this situation. I'm sure, when it's all done, Russia will feel content knowing they have shown up the EU and the UN and shown Georgia that neither of them mean shit. Georgia also should feel content that America will not stand by while an ally will not be left stranded (although I think they realize a military intervention is HIGHLY unlikely).
MOSCOW - Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is criticizing the United States for airlifting Georgian troops from Iraq.
Putin said Monday that the U.S. move will hamper efforts to solve Russia's conflict with Georgia over the breakaway province of South Ossetia. The U.S. military has begun flying 2,000 Georgian troops home from Iraq after Georgia recalled them.
The Russian-Georgian conflict blew up after a Georgian offensive to regain control of the breakaway province of South Ossetia.
Georgian troops fled South Ossetia on Sunday, yielding to superior Russian firepower, and Georgian leaders pleaded for a cease-fire. Moscow responded that Georgia was not observing its cease-fire pledge.
By CHRISTOPHER TORCHIA and MISHA DZHINDZHIKHASHVILI, Associated Press Writers 6 minutes ago
TBILISI, Georgia - Declaring "the aggressor has been punished," the Kremlin ordered a halt Tuesday to Russia's devastating assault on Georgia - five days of air and ground attacks that left homes in smoldering ruins and uprooted 100,000 people.
Georgia said the bombs and shells were still coming hours after the cease-fire was declared, and its President Mikhail Saakashvili said Russia's aim all along was not to gain control of two disputed provinces but to "destroy" the smaller nation, a former Soviet state and current U.S. ally.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, speaking in Moscow, said Georgia had paid enough for its attack on South Ossetia, a separatist region along the Russian border with close ties to Russia.
"The aggressor has been punished and suffered very significant losses. Its military has been disorganized," Medvedev said.
Still, the president ordered his defense minister at a televised Kremlin meeting: "If there are any emerging hotbeds of resistance or any aggressive actions, you should take steps to destroy them."
Hours later, Saakashvili told reporters that he generally accepted the cease-fire plan negotiated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, which calls for both sides to move back to their positions before fighting erupted.
Saakashvili told reporters that he agreed to the "general principles" of the deal but said he saw no reason to sign it as it was only a "political document."
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, were believed to have died since Georgia launched its crackdown on South Ossetia on Thursday, drawing the punishing response from its much larger northern neighbor.
There was evidence Russian forces were attacking Georgian targets within hours of Medvedev's televised order, if not after.
An Associated Press reporter saw 135 Russian military vehicles headed toward the Kodori Gorge in Abkhazia.
Georgian officials said Russia was attacking their troops in the gorge, but a commander in Abkhazia said only local forces, not Russian ones, were involved in push the Georgians out of the region.
The commander, Maj. Gen. Anatoly Zaitsev, said the Russian-backed separatist forces in Abkhazia had driven Georgian troops out of the gorge, their last stronghold in the region, after days of air and artillery strikes.
Hours before Medvedev's order, Russian jets bombed the crossroads city of Gori, near South Ossetia. The post office and university there were burning, but the city was all but deserted after most remaining residents and Georgian soldiers fled.
Saakashvili, speaking to thousands at a square in the capital of Tbilisi, red and white Georgian flags fluttering in the crowd, said the Russian invasion was not about the two disputed provinces.
"They just don't want freedom, and that's why they want to stamp on Georgia and destroy it," he declared.
Russia accused Georgia of killing more than 2,000 people, mostly civilians, in the separatist province of South Ossetia. The claim couldn't be independently confirmed, but witnesses who fled the area over the weekend said hundreds had died.
The overall death toll was expected to rise because large areas of Georgia were still too dangerous for journalists to enter and see the true scope of the damage.
The first relief flight from the U.N. refugee agency arrived in Georgia as the number of people uprooted by the conflict neared 100,000. Thousands streamed into the capital.
Those left behind in devastated regions of Georgia cowered in rat-infested cellars or wandered nearly deserted cities.
In Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian provincial capital now under Russian control, the body of a Georgian soldier lay in the street along with debris as separatist fighters launched rockets at a Georgian plane soaring overhead.
A tour by AP journalists found the heaviest damage around the government center. Near the city center, pieces of tanks lay near a bomb crater. The turret of one tank was blown into the front of the printing school across the street. A severed foot lay on the sidewalk nearby. Several residential areas seemed to have little damage beyond shattered windows.
A poster hanging nearby showed Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the words "Say yes to peace and stability." Broken glass and other debris littered the ground.
Besides the dead, tens of thousands of terrified people have fled the fighting - South Ossetians north to Russia, and Georgians east toward the capital of Tbilisi and west to the country's Black Sea coast.
Among those left behind was 70-year-old Vahktang Chkekvadze, a Georgian villager living in Ruisi who was picking away what was left of a window frame torn by an explosion.
"I always hide in the basement," he said, used to living in a conflict zone. "But this time the explosion came so abruptly, I don't remember what happened afterward."
Two men and a woman in the village, in undisputed Georgian territory just outside South Ossetia, were killed just half an hour before Medvedev went on television to announce the pause in fighting.
Amid the suggestions the military action was cooling down, the Russia-Georgia dispute reached the international courts, with the Georgian security council saying it had sued for ethnic cleansing. Earlier the Russians accused the Georgians of genocide.
Russian officers accompanying journalists visiting Tskhinvali argued that the battle damage showed Georgian troops specifically targeted by Georgian troops. But the worst damage was confined to the area around the government center, and several residential areas seemed to have little damage, except for shattered windows, perhaps from bomb concussions.
The conflict - and its Cold War echoes - continued to play out on the international stage. The leaders of five former Soviet bloc states spoke out against Russian domination at a rally in Tbilisi.
"Our neighbor thinks it can fight us. We are telling it no," said Polish President Lech Kaczynski, who was joined by the leaders of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Ukraine at the rally. Kaczynski says Russia wanted a return to "old times.
The Russian ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin told CNN his country is seeking details on what started the fighting.
"We do not want to believe that the United States has given a green light to this adventurous act," he said. "But our American colleagues are telling us that they're investigating now what may have happened in the channels of communication for Mr. Saakashvili to have behaved in such a reckless manner."
President Bush, one day earlier, had called the Russian invasion unacceptable, and on Tuesday the Russian president assailed the West for supporting Georgia. "International law doesn't envision double standards," Medvedev said.
U.S. officials were focused on confirming a cease-fire and attending to Georgia's urgent humanitarian needs.
"The Russians need to stop their military operations as they have apparently said that they will, but those military operations really do now need to stop because calm needs to be restored," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said.
Georgia, which is pushing for NATO membership, borders the Black Sea between Turkey and Russia and was ruled by Moscow for most of the two centuries preceding the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.
South Ossetia and Abkhazia have run their own affairs without international recognition since fighting to split from Georgia in the early 1990s. Both separatist provinces are backed by Russia, which appears open to absorbing them.
Medvedev said Georgia must allow the provinces to decide whether they want to remain part of Russia.
"Ossetians and Abkhaz must respond to that question taking their history into account, including what happened in the past few days," Medvedev said grimly.
Medvedev said Russian peacekeepers would stay in both provinces, even as Saakashvili said his government will officially designate them as occupying forces.
In Tbilisi, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza declined to say whether the U.S. would provide military support if Russia expands its assault. Georgia sits on a strategic oil pipeline carrying Caspian crude to Western markets and bypassing Russia. The British oil company BP shut down one of three Georgian pipelines, saying it was a precaution.
American forces (about 1000...some neat guys and paratroopers, geeks, too...Georgia Nat'l Guard and some marine reservists left prior to hostilities) are in-country. Sorry, can't remember the site...link from a link...
American forces (about 1000...some neat guys and paratroopers, geeks, too...Georgia Nat'l Guard and some marine reservists left prior to hostilities) are in-country. Sorry, can't remember the site...link from a link...
"Immediate Response 2008"
Ladies and Gentlemen, I think it is safe to say that Ivan is waking up. We're not talking about some "protection" for the georgian rebels and citizens who apparently killed thousands of Russians or something like that. This is an example of muscle. If Russia really cared (humanitarian wise) they would have gone to the UN or something or teamed up with a neighboring country to show peaceful intentions (eg protect the seperatists from massacre "keep the peace" . I have to read a lot more into this as far as where these russian "peace keepers" came to play, etc.
Some classic quotes that may eventually come true. Since Dictator Putin mysteriously is the Prime Minister. View the Prime Minister of Russia as a City or town manager, they handle the day to day operations with the Mayor or selectmen (President) handing the much bigger official administrative duties.
Col. Andy Tanner: ...The Russians need to take us in one piece, and that's why they're here. That's why they won't use nukes anymore; and we won't either, not on our own soil. The whole damn thing's pretty conventional now. Who knows? Maybe next week will be swords. Darryl Bates: What started it? Col. Andy Tanner: I don't know. Two toughest kids on the block, I guess. Sooner or later, they're gonna fight. Jed Eckert: That simple, is it? Col. Andy Tanner: Or maybe somebody just forget what it was like. Jed Eckert: ...Well, who *is* on our side? Col. Andy Tanner: Six hundred million screaming Chinamen. Darryl Bates: Last I heard, there were a billion screaming Chinamen. Col. Andy Tanner: There *were*.
[he throws whiskey on the fire; it ignites violently, suggesting a nuclear explosion]
Anyone see the interview with the Georgian president where he claims that an unexploded bomb had anti NATO and American slogans on it? Makes you wonder what the Russian military has running through their heads
Russian military convoy heads for Georgian capital, say witnesses guardian.co.uk - 1 hour ago
A Russian military convoy is heading towards the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, according to witnesses. Guardian correspondent Luke Harding reported that the convoy, headed by an armoured personnel carrier, and followed by six or seven military vehicles, ... Video: Civilians bear the brunt in Gori - 13 Aug 08AlJazeeraEnglish
The Georgian Character The Georgians are said to be the most hospitality people on Earth, with strong traditions of chivalry and codes of personal honor. They believe that guests come from God. Friendship is prized highest among all the virtues. It is celebrated in the great national epic in the, The Knight in the Tiger's Skin, by Shota Rustaveli and which provides an insight into daily life, in which a person's worth is judged not by how much money he or she has in his pocket but how many friends he has. The Georgians are proud, passionate and fiercely individualistic, yet deeply connected with each other through a shared sense of belonging to a greater Georgian family. Women are highly esteemed in the society and are accorded a respect endowed with great courtliness. The statue of Mother Georgia (Kartlis Deda) that stands in the hills above Tbilisi perhaps best symbolizes the national character: in her left hand she holds a bowl of wine with which she greets her friends and in her right is a sword to draw against her enemies.
Sounds like the kinds of Allies the U.S. should protect!
Georgian villages looted as conflict ceasefire threatened AFP - 1 hour ago
GORI, Georgia (AFP) - Separatist fighters and Russian troops looted and set homes ablaze in Georgian territory on Wednesday amid fears over a fragile ceasefire that ended five days of bitter conflict. Video: Civilians bear the brunt in Gori - 13 Aug 08AlJazeeraEnglish
Thank you Rumsfeld for going in to Iraq on the cheap, those many years & lives ago. The Soviets know an opportunity when they see one. Hopefully, no one else is thinking the same thing (N. Korea, China, etc).
We used to be able to fight 2 major wars. Unless we pull people out of South Korea. Wait we all ready did that.
From the BBC
The crisis erupted late on 7 August when Georgian forces bombarded South Ossetia to restore Tbilisi's control over the region, where the majority of people hold Russian passports. Russia quickly became involved, bombing targets in Georgia and sending in troops. Some 100,000 people are estimated to have been displaced by the conflict.
Maybe in the early 5 minute planning stages of this military action the thought was to rescue the Russian Passport holders from the dangerous rebels and Georgian military fighting. (AKA a Grenada type rescue mission). However it is quite apparent this is the flex of military muscle.
Its been time to go home from Iraq for a few years now. I'd say at least since we got Saddam. A contingent of Marines would remain there to secure the US Embassy in Iraq and maybe a few hundred US Military personal in training roles, etc. Other then that everyone goes home. See ya bye!
GORI, Georgia - Explosions were heard near Gori on Thursday as a Russian troop withdrawal from the strategic city seemed to collapse. A fragile cease-fire appeared even more shaky as Russia's foreign minister declared that the world "can forget about any talk about Georgia's territorial integrity."
The declaration from Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov came simultaneously with the announcement that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was meeting in the Kremlin with the leaders of Georgia's two separatist provinces.
"One can forget about any talk about Georgia's territorial integrity because, I believe, it is impossible to persuade South Ossetia and Abkhazia to agree with the logic that they can be forced back into the Georgian state," Lavrov told reporters.
There were at least five explosions near Gori. It could not immediately be determined if the blasts were a renewal of fighting between Georgian and Russian forces, but they sounded similar to mortar shells and occurred after a tense confrontation between Russian and Georgian troops on the edge of the city.
The strategically located city is 15 miles south of South Ossetia, the separatist region where Russian and Georgian forces fought a brutal five-day battle. Russian troops entered Gori on Wednesday, after the two sides signed the cease-fire that called for their forces to pull back to the positions they held before the fighting started.
Georgia early Thursday said the Russians were leaving the city, but later alleged they were bringing in additional troops. Georgian government officials who had gone into the city for the possible handover left unexpectedly around midday, followed by a checkpoint confrontation outside Gori which ended when Russian tanks sped toward the area and Georgian police quickly retreated.
A Russian general in Gori had said Wednesday it would take at least two days to leave the city. Lavrov said troops were evacuating Georgian weapons and ammunition from a military base in Gori.
In Washington, a Pentagon official said U.S. intelligence had assessed early Thursday that the number of Russians in Gori was small - about 100 to 200 troops.
Some Georgian police said irregular fighters from South Ossetia had refused to leave Gori, where a BBC reporter saw them looting and burning Wednesday night.
Two planned U.S. aid flights arrived in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi late Wednesday and Thursday, carrying cots, blankets and medicine for refugees displaced by the fighting. The shipment arrived on a C-17 military plane, an illustration of the close U.S.-Georgia military cooperation that has angered Russia.
Besides the hundreds killed since hostilities broke out, the United Nations estimates 100,000 Georgians have been uprooted; Russia says some 30,000 residents of South Ossetia fled into the neighboring Russian province of North Ossetia.
Gori was battered by sporadic Russian bombing before the cease-fire, with Russia saying it was targeting a military base near the city. The city, on Georgia's only significant east-west road, is only 60 miles west of Tbilisi.
The Russian troops' presence in Gori was viewed as a demonstration of the vulnerability of the capital.
Russian troops also appeared to be settling in elsewhere in Georgia.
The Georgian Foreign Ministry said Russian troops remained in Poti, a Black Sea port city with an oil terminal that is key to Georgia's fragile economic health.
An APTN crew in Poti saw one destroyed Georgian military boat, about 20 yards long, two Russian armored vehicles and two Russian transport trucks inside the port. They were blocked from moving closer by soldiers who identified themselves as Russian peacekeepers.
Earlier Thursday, on Poti's outskirts, the APTN crew followed a different convoy of Russian troops as they searched a forest for Georgian military equipment.
Another APTN camera crew saw Russian soldiers and military vehicles parked Thursday inside the Georgian government's elegant, heavily-gated residence in the western town of Zugdidi. Some of the soldiers wore blue peacekeeping helmets, others wore green camouflage helmets, all were heavily armed. The scene underlined how closely the soldiers Russia calls peacekeepers are allied with its military.
"The Russian troops are here. They are occupying," Ygor Gegenava, an elderly Zugdidi resident told the APTN crew. "We don't want them here. What we need is friendship and good relations with the Russian people."
Georgia, bordering the Black Sea between Turkey and Russia, was ruled by Moscow for most of the two centuries preceding the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was flying Thursday to France and then to Tbilisi to reinforce U.S. efforts to "rally the world in defense of a free Georgia."
"This is not 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia where Russia can threaten a neighbor, occupy a capital, overthrow a government and get away with it. Things have changed," Rice said in Washington on Wednesday.
A steady, dejected trickle of Georgian refugees fled the front line Wednesday in overloaded cars, trucks and tractor-pulled wagons, heading to Tbilisi on the road from Gori. One Soviet-era car carried eight people, including a mother and a baby in the front seat. The open back door of a small blue van revealed at least a dozen people crowded inside.
The Russian General Prosecutor's office on Thursday said it has formally opened a genocide probe into Georgian treatment of South Ossetians. For its part, Georgia this week filed a suit against Russia in the International Court of Justice, alleging murder, rape and mass expulsions in both provinces.
More homes in deserted ethnic Georgian villages were apparently set ablaze Wednesday, sending clouds of smoke over the foothills north of Tskhinvali, capital of breakaway South Ossetia.
One Russian colonel, who refused to give his name, blamed the fires on looters.
Those with ethnic Georgian backgrounds who have stayed behind - like 70-year-old retired teacher Vinera Chebataryeva - seem increasingly unwelcome in South Ossetia.
As she stood sobbing in her wrecked apartment near the center of Tskhinvali, Chebataryeva said a skirmish between Ossetian soldiers and a Georgian tank had gouged the two gaping shell holes in her wall, bashing in her piano and destroying her furniture.
Janna Kuzayeva, an ethnic Ossetian neighbor, claimed the Georgian tank fired the shell at Chebataryeva's apartment.
"We know for sure her brother spied for Georgians," said Kuzayeva. "We let her stay here, and now she's blaming everything on us."
Pointing to her broken door, Chebataryeva said Ossetian soldiers broke into her apartment and started firing at the Georgian tank from her windows.
North of Tskhinvali, a number of former Georgian communities have been abandoned due to the intense fighting of the last few days. "There isn't a single Georgian left in those villages," said Robert Kochi, a 45-year-old South Ossetian.
But he had little sympathy for his former Georgian neighbors, whom he accused of trying to drive out Ossetians. "They wanted to physically uproot us all," he said. "What other definition is there for genocide?"
___ Associated Press writers Misha Dzhindzhikhavili in Tbilisi; Mansur Mirovalev in Tskhinvali, Georgia; Jim Heintz in Moscow; and Anne Gearan and Pauline Jelinek in Washington contributed to this report.
President Bush sent American troops to Georgia yesterday to oversee a "vigorous and ongoing" humanitarian mission, in a direct challenge to Russia's display of military dominance over the region. His action came after Russian soldiers moved into two strategic Georgian cities in what he and Georgian officials called a violation of the cease-fire Russia signed the day before. (By Steven Lee Myers, Boston Globe)
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said that Russia will begin pulling troops out of Georgia beginning Monday.
GORI, Georgia (AP) ― Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced that Russian troops will begin pulling back from Georgia on Monday as Western leaders pushed for a swift end to the stranglehold that the Russian military has exerted for days on its small southern neighbor.
Medvedev suggested that Russian forces could remain in separatist South Ossetia, the focus of the conflict. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili said his country will not give up that breakaway region or another separatist province, Abkhazia.
"Georgia will never give up a square kilometer of its territory," Saakashvili told a news conference alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the latest Western leader to visit Tbilisi and offer support for a country at the center of deepening tensions between Russia and the West.
"I expect a very fast, very prompt withdrawal of Russian troops out of Georgia," Merkel said in a courtyard at Saakashvili's official residence. "This is an urgent matter."
As she spoke, Russian tanks and troops continued to roam freely across a wide swath of Georgia and desperate Georgian refugees in Gori were seen shoving and shouting in an attempt to get bread.
Saakashvili alleged that Russian forces, far from withdrawing, had moved closer to the capital Saturday and - some of his trademark bluster still intact - vowed to defend Tbilisi if necessary. He also accused Russia of ethnic cleansing and said Georgia would not accept a future presence of Russian peacekeepers.
Medvedev told French President Nicolas Sarkozy that Russian forces would begin their withdrawal Monday, moving toward South Ossetia and a security zone that roughly coincides with its borders, according to the Kremlin.
But he stopped short of promising they would return to Russia, suggesting that Russia could maintain a sizable force in South Ossetia. That would likely fuel fears that Russia could seek to annex the region, which - like Abkhazia - broke from government control in the 1990s and has declared independence.
Sarkozy warned Medvedev on the phone Sunday that Russia would face "serious consequences" if it did not begin the pullout - a sentiment echoed in Washington.
"I hope this time he'll keep his word," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said after Medvedev's statement.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Russia was showing signs of returning to its authoritarian past - a development that will require the U.S. to re-evaluate the strategic relationship between the superpowers.
Georgia, bordering the Black Sea between Turkey and Russia, was ruled by Moscow for most of the two centuries preceding the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. Under Saakashvili, Georgia has sought NATO membership and has emerged as a proxy for conflict between an emboldened Russia and the West.
The EU-backed cease-fire agreement calls for Georgian and Russian troops to withdraw to the positions they held before fighting broke out Aug. 7.
Russian troops still have a stranglehold on Georgia because they control the main highway running through the country and surround the central strategic city of Gori, the western city of Senaki and the Senaki air base.
Russian troops were entrenched on a hill after building ramparts around tanks and posting sentries near Igoeti, a central Georgia town only 30 miles west of Tbilisi.
There were several Russian checkpoints Sunday on the road between Igoeti and Gori, a central city not far from South Ossetia. Some armored vehicles stood off the side of the road, camouflaged with cut branches.
There were a few military vehicles but no longer any tanks at the checkpoint at the entrance to Gori, less fortified than in previous days.
In Gori itself, there was a light presence of Russian troops and a few tanks. Virtually all shops were closed and the streets almost empty, save for clusters of people, many from outlying villages, who gathered around aid vehicles and a basement bakery.
People shouted and shoved as they tried to grab loaves of bread and boxes. A few women appeared hysterical at the shifting nature of the food distribution from handouts to a registration system.
The Russians also controlled the Black Sea port city of Poti and the road north to Abkhazia.
Georgia's Foreign Ministry accused Russian army units and separatist fighters in Abkhazia of taking over 13 villages and the Inguri hydropower plant, shifting the border of the Black Sea province toward the Inguri River. Russia confirmed Sunday that its peacekeepers were in control of the western power plant.
The villages and plant are in a U.N.-established buffer zone on Abkhazia's edge, and it appeared the separatists were bolstering their control over the zone after forcing Georgians out of their last stronghold in Abkhazia last week.
"No matter what happens, we will never reconcile with the fact of annexation or indeed separation of parts of territory from Georgia; with the attempt to legalize ethnic cleansing; and with the attempts to bring Georgia to its knees and undermine our democratic system," Saakashvili said.
The West agrees that Georgia must not be broken up divided, Merkel said.
"Georgia is a sovereign state and the territorial integrity of the state must be provided for," she said.
She stressed German support for Georgia's NATO aspirations but said she did not know when that would happen. Merkel also suggested NATO could help rebuild the tattered Georgian military.
NATO offered Georgia assurance in April that it would eventually join NATO, but declined to offer it a blueprint for membership, in part because of fears in Germany and other European nations of angering Russia, a major EU energy supplier.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Thursday that Georgia could "forget about" getting the two regions back. On Saturday, he said that Russia will boost its peacekeeping force in South Ossetia and will not withdraw its other troops until further security measures are taken.
In Tbilisi, the faithful went to church Sunday, praying and lighting candles in the city's Holy Trinity Cathedral, a Georgian Orthodox church.
"I wish peace for my country and for our children. We do not want to live in fear," resident Ia Kvirkvelia told an AP television news crew.
A large anti-Russian banner hung Sunday in front of the Parliament building in central Tbilisi: "No war, Russia go home."
In Italy, Pope Benedict XVI called for the immediate creation of a humanitarian corridor to speed aid to refugees and for all sides to respect the rights of ethnic minorities.
The conflict erupted after Georgia launched a massive barrage Aug. 7 to try to take control of South Ossetia. The Russian army quickly overwhelmed its neighbor's forces and drove deep into Georgia, raising fears that of a long-term Russian occupation.
Russia views the growing relationship between the U.S. and Georgia as an encroachment on its traditional sphere of influence. The fighting came amid U.S. efforts to close a deal on a missile shield based in former Soviet satellites in Europe.